BILL DANE PHOTOGRAPHS OUTSIDE AND INSIDE AMERICA

Introduction by Ann Swidler
1993

These photographs of near and distant places explore what it means to  be American. In them, a laconic cowboy sensibility confronts the 

A strain of American photography since Robert Frank has concerned itself  with finding what is centrally American –attempting the great American  novel in visual form. Why did Bill Dane, who comes directly out of this  tradition, choose to travel? And what did he see when he returned? Why  does this book show no country gas stations, city street kids, suburban  housewives, cars, motels, or other icons of the American dreams? Why  Buddahs, but no bikers?

Bill Dane himself is a Californian. Born in Pasadena, with a B. A. in Art and  Political Science and a Master’s Degree in painting from Berkeley, he  started out making large, grid-patterned paintings which squares of color  on raw canvas created a Zen-like concern with surface. Just before a big  one-man show, his studio and all of his paintings burned. He produced  new work for the show-large, grid-oriented color field paintings and  ethereal spray-painted sheets of clear plastic film. But he also begun  making photographs with a camera he had been carrying with him when  the fire burned his studio. The photographs were color contact sheets of  repetitive, slightly varying images (I remember a series of his wardrobes,  each item on a hanger, solemnly hung against a wall), the effect much like  the grid paintings. Soon after that, Dane began sending black and white  photographic postcards to friends and acquaintances. He created a social  world as well as a visual one.

John Szarkowski has written that Bill Dane’s postcard embody “the  discovery of classical measure in the heart of God’s own junkyard, the  discovery of the kind of optimism, still available at least to the eye.” He has  also commented on the postcards as gifts, noting that, “This is not the  manner in which artists have traditionally subsidized their public.” But I  suspect that an urge to communicate more directly was at work here too.  Dane’s postcard-photographs guarantee –in a way a gallery show cannot-  that people see his work, receive it as a personal communication, in the  midst of their ordinary lives.

The photographs here come to us not by mail, but in the more enduring  format of the photographic book. Nor are they quite the discovery of  classical form in unexpected places that Szarkowski describes, although  that’s how things start off. The first photograph, of the Hamburg train  station, has the aesthetic character for which photographs are usually  praised: poise, elegance, timelessness, and a serene beauty that belies  the commotion engulfing real train stations. But this seductive world, all  light and form, doesn’t last. The Beauty of these peculiar places becomes  more and more disturbing. Things stop fitting together in ways we can  easily understand.

Problems appear with the book’s second picture. A classic tourist vista of  Barcelona is interrupted or perhaps cancelled, by the enormous backside  of something –a statue, surely, but whether of an awkwardly made, vie- covered putti or a decorative drain pipe, we cannot tell. A Japanese  photograph shows a fountain with two pelicans spouting symmetrical arcs  of water –the kind of funny but formal image typical of the postcard  photographs- framing a group of police in riot gear. Difficulties worsen in  pictures such as the Hong Kong photograph of plaster figures decaying  on a cement hillside, What are they part of? A sculpture garden? A  diorama? A religious shrine? Some primitive Disneyland? They illustrate a  story to which we have no clue. These images are still beautiful, but we no  longer know what they mean.

The photographer’s visual attitude helps create this sense of  strangeness. Dane frames his shots to give us either too much  information –some that does not fit with the way the image is “meant” to  be seen- or too little. As with the Hong Kong figures, we can’t put tings in  perspective.

As often happens when innocents go abroad, even the familiar world is  never the same again. These photographs illustrate how much our  normal vision rests on loving familiarity –a willingness to see the world as  it is meant to, expects to be seen. Taken out of context that which is  familiar, even beloved, appears grotesque, strange, sad, even horrible. Bill  Dane’s angle of vision reminds us of thee charity with which we normally  see –or avoid seeing- one another.

The American photographs, which ought to return us to a comfortable  insider’s view, turn our vision inside out. Again, things start simple, even  sentimentally: a group of elderly women –mothers, perhaps aunts, sisters, grandmothers, and even a seductive California landscape. But soon the  American photographs look as strange, and indeed as foreign as any  taken outside America.

Statues, monuments, enigmatic ruins, and even strange robed figures  seem to populate the American landscape. A slightly dilapidated Las  Vegas fountain has kind of massive, rotund dignity, while in a Point  Richmond, California living room a huge ceramic lion is ensconced before  an incongruously decorated modern hearth. Many of the photographs  suggest obscure cults, odd gods, and private religions on public display.

Bill Dane’s photographs destroy the familiarity required for painless  seeing. This is partly a matter of capturing odd moments –like the Tokyo  woman, perhaps only raising her arms in greeting, who nonetheless  appears to be dancing energetically in the idiosyncratic amateur theatrical.  But this oddness is also –indeed necessarily- a matter of framing. Where  is the thick-thighed dancer so incongruously performing? The space  seems to be outside a theater, and yet inside something else –perhaps a  shopping mall? She dances on a kind of tile platform, surely not a stage,  but then what? The camera’s angle of vision, like the small, abandoned  umbrella sharing the dancer’s stage and the indifferent passers-by, gives  a sense of inadvertence, of something not meant to be seen quite this way.

These photographs are of public places, yet seem to intrude on private  worlds. Public buildings, statues, fountains, shrines, and ubiquitous signs  display a nutty dishevelment that undermines their claims to dignity. Like  Diane Arbus’ freaks, they show their vulnerability precisely by not  attempting to hide their strangeness. Objects made for public exhibit have  obviously come to hard times. Like the cute but forlorn public telephone in  Hong Kong, these artifacts no longer sustain the public face their creators  intended –and their familiars may still grant.

Many of the photographs in this book are funny. The massive, ornate,  dignified Duomo rises from a rabble of parked cars. The distant, eternal  pyramids frame a sea of cheap plastic chairs in which tourists will sit for a  light show. But other photographs are funny in a more disturbing way – because something is apparently amiss. But what? It is hard to get our  bearings enough to know what is going on, let alone what is going wrong.

Dane’s deep humor shows in his “jokes” about what is real and what is  fake. John Szarkowski, among others, has pointed out that photography’s  implicit claim to reflect reality creates an extreme fictitiousness. But if  intimate portraits of grains of sand, the curves of the seashell, or the lines  of a human face are kind of fiction, how much thornier the problem  becomes when the things photographed (like the newly-manufactured pre- Colombian, or Inca, or Aztec artifacts laid out on a table in Mexico, or the  pseudo-classical ones on display in a Marin City, California flea market)  are themselves so clearly fake. Bill Dane has interested himself in human  artifacts, man-made objects whose capacity to communicate has  somehow gone awry. Artifice is in one sense exploded by being exposed.

But this only reveals a deeper problem about truth and fiction in  photographs. In a painting, we know that the artist’s intention is  controlling. He or she is both practically and morally responsible for  whatever we see. In photographs, that responsibility is partially abridged. If  Bill Dane photographs things that are incomprehensible to us, we cannot  e fully reassured that at least he knows what they mean. Something at the  heart of these photographs is contrived, but by whom? Do several layers  of fictitiousness cancel each other out or compound one another? The  photographs force us to force not only an aesthetic vision, but our own  relationship to the world they picture.

Dane’s work is not, as some have thought, the export of a California funk  sensibility, celebrating junk at home and abroad. These photographs are  profoundly American, but not in any easy sense. D.H. Lawrence noted long  ago that classic American literature hid a secret. The greatest American  stories, like The Deerslayer, Huckleberry Finn, or Moby Dick, were boys’  stories, written for culture that didn’t want to grow up. Yet in their secret  hearts, those stories were about evil and the kind of redemption that might  come from confronting its mysteries. Bill Dane’s photographs have that  edgy rites, no starving urchins, no massed humanity here. Yet the  apparent ordinariness of these common public scenes enforces a sense  of their strangeness. Dane shows us not an exotic heart of darkness, but  the American difficulty in dealing with what we cannot understand, own, or  control.

The quest for national self-understanding has been central to the history  of photography in America. So much so that it has become hard to explore  in fresh visual terms. Country folk, suburbs, cars, and flags have yielded  up much of what they can say about America, and today there is a short  distance between the iconic and the irrelevantly romantic. Yet great  American photographers keep trying. Bill Dane, having explored the  sensuous artifacts of America’s commercial civilization, moves outside  the boundaries of American proper to look at how we look at the rest of the  world. And then he moves back into America, addressing it’s surface  mysteries.

There is humor, joy, and generosity in Dane’s appreciation of the visual  surprises the world has to offer. And there is his unnerving willingness to  face how little we know, share, can really see of the world where we come  as outsiders. Some of the photographs seem oddly ugly –the puffy,  bulbous stuffed baseballs trapped in plastic sheeting or the luridly weird  bear fashioned from comics which props up a display of Imari China. We  puzzle over the eccentricity of these objects, but then we begin to  understand how much a photograph can let us see if we don’t flinch. If we  let ourselves see what we do not really expect, and notice the anomalies  in predictable scenes of tourism, we are forced to learn something new – not about Japan or Egypt or California, but about ourselves.

These photographs seem to be about foreignness, both here and abroad.  But they are really about us as Americans. They ask whether we can learn  to love – not because alien worlds accommodate themselves to what we  expect, but because we have learned to see even where we cannot  understand.

Ann Swidler teaches sociology at the University of California, Berkeley.  She has written widely about American culture. She is author of  Organization without Authority: Dilemmas of Social Control in Free  Schools and a co-author of Habits of the Heart: Individualism and  Commitment in American Life and The Good Society.